But even though every World Cup brings a chance to assess the growth of the women’s game, and the impact the players are having, that is not why they are in France. That is not their primary task. Their primary task is to win the World Cup. In years past, at best, England traveled in hope of doing so.
This time around, there is a certain level of expectation. England is ranked third in the world; its domestic league is booming, flush with investment from the behemoths of the Premier League. Its teams are performing well in European club competitions, and a clutch of talented young players, Stanway and her Manchester City teammate Nikita Parris prime among them, is emerging. The team finished third in the 2015 World Cup. Back home, there is a belief that this time England can go at least one better.
There has been no attempt, though, to play down that pressure. England does not appear to be cowed by the status it has been assigned. Instead, the players have embraced this new role, too.
Stanway is perfectly happy to say that she hopes the other teams to have made it to the last 16 “fear” England. She would be delighted to think that none of them “want to play us.” There is no regret, not even a scintilla, that beating Japan on Wednesday night in Nice means that England — should it survive the last 16 and a quarterfinal — will find either the United States or France in its path in the semifinals. (Japan, inventive and bright without ever suggesting the presence of a cutting edge, finished second in Group D, and will now theoretically have an easier road to the final.) This is an England that believes in itself.
The group stage provides ample supporting evidence: England has won all three of its games, conceding just one goal. Neville has, like the United States coach, Jill Ellis, rotated heavily throughout, not only a way of saving legs ahead of the knockout rounds but flexing muscle, just a little, too. He seems spoiled for choices.
England saved its most impressive performance for last in the group stage, overcoming the gifted and experienced Japan team through a mixture of grit and guile. “Japan has the technical level, the tactical level, the physicality that they bring,” England’s Rachel Daly said. “All three games have been very different, but it’s good for us to have played such a high-quality team.”
In a way that the United States, certainly, has not yet experienced, England knows the level it will have to reach in the more exacting games that await in the coming weeks. Neville’s squad has the air of what the Germans call a “tournament team,” a unit that picks up speed as it climbs farther up the hill.